Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Silenced by the Night

For D., who first read me this poem on a long-ago wintry night atop a lovely hill, who held my hand when I was too afraid to look down, whose smile always feels like sunshine, and who always keeps a song in his heart. And because I have no other words of my own tonight.

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear. 
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. 

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go,

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

- Theodore Roethke

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Edge of the Ocean

When I was younger and the author of a different blog, I remember I used to be obsessed with Grey's Anatomy. I thought of the much-confused Meredith Grey as a sort of alter-ego and go-to gal for my own life problems. Of course, this was way back when my 'life problems' consisted of dealing with an uber-competitive classmate/frenemy and agonising about a crush who was completely clueless about my existence. Ah, now those were simpler times!

Anyway, since Grey's Anatomy has since fallen off my tv-viewing radar and I'd like to think my life has gotten complex enough for me to now watch trashier television than I used to, and not obsess about it (contrary to what my friends would claim), I thought it might be nice to revisit those old-favourite quotable quotes that made Meredith Grey such an inspiring character in the first place.

Whereas I've clearly outgrown some of them, and now find a few quite mawkish. But the rest of them, I'm happy to report, still make a lot of sense to me.

This one, for example. "You can waste your life drawing lines. Or you can live your life crossing them." I think those are words to live by, really.

Reading them again made me smile and remember what it was about that scrappy unabashedly-emo chick that was so appealing in the first place. It was that fierce determination to go out and get what she wanted, regardless of the personal cost. It was that unique mix of desperate and zealous, detached and vulnerable, needy and independent that made her feel so real to me. Oddly enough, it was kinda like meeting an old friend - the kind you used to be real close to, but now find you don't really talk to any more, apart from the occasional inspirational text message.

The song remains the same

These days I feel a little lost in the haze of routine. Every day resembles the previous one so exactly that the passage of time doesn't feel like something that needs to be made note of at all, really. I've realised I've spent almost my whole life doing things at odd times of day - so now, waking at the crack of dawn and actually watching sunrises feels like something out of someone else's life.

I'm surrounded by people all the time and yet, I wish the world could be a little more intrusive. Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm holding something back. I've been awfully good at withdrawing from people but now I'm required to do the opposite. To reach into them. And sometimes, quite literally, too. Other people's lives, their existences start to take on the quality of the hyper-real. I used to have a professor who claimed that Indians aren't, what she called 'self-actualised'. 

It isn't true. Most people have such a clear sense of self - they think about their own self all the time and they think about making their lives better. I mean, why wouldn't you? You literally are at the centre of your universe. It's from behind your own eyes that you perceive the world. And everyone else in it. It makes sense that you would think of your place in the world as something important and something unchanging. It is this sense that colours all of one's reactions to the world. This idea of being at the centre of it all. 

Of course, there is a part of me that enjoys being a creature of habit. It's a good thing to have all your days mapped out. It is weirdly freeing. Time passes more slowly and the precious few hours I keep for myself every day feel refreshing. I've started to read more and study more and enjoy it. 

I've never been what you'd call a workaholic. But now the idea of taking a break feels much less appealing, much more unnecessary. I guess you'd say one gets used to anything. And I am grateful for that. I never thought I'd be this content right now. I'm really, really glad that I am.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Love makes the world go 'round

'A General Theory of Love' is turning into a bit of comfort-reading these days. I tend to skim through chapters right before I go to sleep. For a neurobiology book, it's a fairly romantic read.

I was reading it right now and remembered how much I'd enjoyed this idea of limbic resonance the first time that I read it. Our limbic systems which are sort of the most primitive and emotional parts of our brain, are not exactly information-sponges. As the book puts it, they don't pick up facts as rapidly as the neocortex does.

The book postulates that the limbic system is capable of something rather profound, however. That it enables us to share deep emotional states and is responsible for our capacity to form non-verbal connections with other members of our species which are in large part responsible for our elaborate social behaviour. And this leads not just to creating the capacity for empathy but in some cases it lays the basis for the bonds of companionship since it allows 'our systems to synchronise with each other through limbic revision'.

All in all, apparently love rewires the brain by changing its chemistry. And to adopt the book's guileless and somewhat mushy tone, 'In any relationship, one mind revises the other; one heart changes its partner. This astounding legacy of our mammalian brains is limbic revision : the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love as our Attractors activate certain neural pathways and the brain's inexorable memory mechanism reinforces them.'

What all that means is that who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.

It rarely happens that a popular science book ends up saying the same thing as your favourite Jane Austen novel. But when it does, you can't help grinning like a fool as you jump out of bed to type it onto your blog.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Because God is in the detail

I've been trying and trying to scrounge some time for my own self these past few weeks - time to read, time to listen, time to breathe, time to write something that would help me keep these experiences for posterity, time to just reflect on things, atleast for a little while.

I haven't been able to get much recreational reading done these days but one book I finally finished is one I had started to read many, many times but somehow had never got past the third chapter. Something always kept getting in the way - exams, illness, busy-ness. Perhaps, it was in the nature of this book even. It wasn't the kind that had you yearning to turn the page, to go racing to the end. It was more the kind that allowed you to slow yourself down and take your time. You could come back to it any time you wanted, even if you had to leave. You wouldn't be missing anything though you weren't paying attention.

So yeah, it was sort of meandering and ponderous even. And now that I'm at the end of it, I realise although it was barely 400 pages long, it felt like a much bigger book. It even sounds like a big book - One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I wish I could say it was my first brush with this variety of magic realism - something that seems to be a running theme through some good South American writing - Jorge Luis Borges being another writer I've been told I should read.

Of course, my first brush would have been Salman Rushdie but in his hands, even when he writes multi-generational, blowing-in-the-winds-of-change books like Midnight's Children, there seems to be something artificial about this device - something not organic, something learned and not felt.

Marquez, on the other hand, manages to make his literary creations feel real with all their naked emotions and their incestuous longings and their bloody battles and their general sticky sweatiness. It's really incredible. His world-building is so detailed that it becomes difficult to deny that Macondo - this village where the many generations of the Buendia family live out their sordid little lives is a real place - you almost think you could be watching some Nat Geo historian telling you about it in the afternoons.

When we find out that these people who go exploring through the wilderness leaving their old dying town behind, to establish their own  village in what feels like the middle of nowhere, these people have no idea how time passes in the outside world, or even which year it's supposed to be or how far away from the sea they are, it feels not like a conceit that is supposed to make us believe that Macondo is a kind of fantasy Never-never-land, it feels truthful because the kind of people that they are, the times that they lived in, the education that they were allowed to acquire - that they probably didn't know much about navigation or geography or magnetism - we understand that it is plausible that these people would see a block of ice illuminated by sunlight for the first time and wonder if it's really a giant diamond.

The people themselves are vibrant and passionate - it's exactly how you'd imagine Latin Americans to be, down to the very last stereotype. And in a way that is what they are. You get the feeling that as time passes, the people that belong to this founding family cease to be unique and settle for being approximations of those that came before them. The many daughters and sons and nephews and aunts are all variations of the first two people we meet. Jose Arcadio Buendia who is big, strong, boisterous, extravagant, intelligent and imaginative and his wife Ursula who is tiny, quiet, pious, industrious, and grounded. Their defining characteristics get shuffled into several permutations and combinations as their children and their children's children live and breathe and fight and make love and bear children who grow up to repeat the patterns of their parents' lives.

All this reads as quite mundane, I realise now but that is what life is often like. On the whole, we live out our lives engaged in our passions and in our routines and these are often only significant to us because we live them.

A friend once told me, if there was a God, we'd be like ants to him. Running around in little circles, trying to preserve our precious little lives. When I asked her if she thought that we were gods to ants, she thought the idea was hilarious.

There was this throwaway line in an otherwise average film I saw recently - 'We are, each one of us, the hero of their life.' seeming to suggest that even at its most unremarkable, each life is inherently extraordinary.

And after reading this book, after sifting through these lives, I'd say I agree. All lives end, all hearts are broken. But it matters that we lived and it counts when we loved. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Late Goodbye

I used to think it was natural to eventually lose track of people if you had to lead a kind of solitary existence. Not sticking around in one place very long helps, of course. You find it becomes rather easy to end up alone.

There's never a need to make excuses to yourself for not having said a final goodbye to this or that person. There is the hope that your paths will cross again. Some day. And there is the idea that this hope is quite enough. The present becomes bearable, even pleasant, because of the belief that such and such a future exists.

"You can stay in the same place and still find ways to leave people." I kept thinking about his words all night. It must have been such a sad thing I thought at first, but he said it with such serenity that it became a sort of first principle, a self-apparent truth, an axiom really. I didn't think to question it. It must be satisfying - to not have to answer to anyone else. To go it alone. So brave.

It was much later that I sensed the deep melancholy behind the words when I did finally manage to get to sleep. Hovering somewhere in that grey zone between sleep and waking, I thought I heard his voice again. You know, how a recent memory returns, vivid and highly-coloured, just as you're about to relinquish consciousness. And it was then that I realised what I assumed had been serenity, was resignation. I would have forgotten all about it, if it wasn't for those recurring words.

I understand now. It was a surrender, not a choice. I wish I could have reached out and held his hand. Would it have made him feel better? Or would it have been another of those things that lingered in his memory before he decided it was time he left? It's pointless to ponder what could have been when you know for certain what will be. And what I know for certain is that it's too late now.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On the magic of the written word

It's been a while since I watched Carl Sagan's iconic series Cosmos, but I remember the flights of fancy that every episode sent me on. G. who'd watched the series when it was originally broadcast tells me he's been rediscovering it post-exams all these years later.

He emailed me this quote from the episode The Persistence of Memory, a couple minutes ago. And since it makes my heart sing with joy, I'll put it here for safe-keeping. 

"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."

I have always admired Carl Sagan, his ability to explain complex concepts in simple words without being reductive, his humanism, his deep respect for all life, his unflagging devotion to the cause of spreading knowledge. He inspired a lot of the scientists of our generation and he's always inspired me, too.

But tonight he's given me more to think about. This feeling of belonging I get, when often I read something that strikes a chord within me, or write something that leads to a conversation with strangers, occasionally turning them into friends. It does feel like magic. I am grateful for it. And for Carl. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Will night never come?

"They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."

- Pozzo to Didi & Gogo on the lot of humankind, in 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Of Love and other Demons

Well, I must say the best thing to have happened to me all this month was to have Chaitanya decide to take a long vacation and return to Bombay for a month to absorb some 'culture' as he puts it. My friends have all been rather busy with visa interviews and moving to another city while my decision to do the same has been happily delayed. However, that left me with a bit of a void in a social calendar, that finally had more free week nights than I could count. So Chaitanya and I embarked on a mission to seek out 'culture' in the city.

This was just about as much fun as it sounded. Well, okay, it was a lot of fun admittedly. Trekking to Shivaji Park every evening in peak hour traffic has been well worth the plays we caught at the Motley Theater Festival but when C. booked tickets for an evening of Kathakali at the NCPA, I was more than a little worried. The only Kathakali performance I had previously witnessed was a rather abridged-for-tourists version at what looked like a warehouse-turned-auditorium in Kottayam in our trip to Kerala last year.

And while we were suitably impressed with the exposition on make-up and costume and the intricate and intensely meaningful hand-gestures, I never expected it to be anything more than visually enticing.

That we watched the incredibly talented Kalakshetra Foundation dancers perform an episode from the Mahabharata called Keechaka Vadham (The Killing of Keechaka) and felt deeply moved was something I really had not expected.

To have managed to take the dance from being a mere visual spectacle to being a truly nuanced piece of story-telling was to the credit of the NCPA Mudra Dance Festival organisers. Behind the dancers and the musicians and the singers were two large projection screens that translated verbatim into English every line of song that made up the story, and the translations were so perfect that we could even guess at the hand-gestures that the dancers deployed from what must have been a fabulously rich vocabulary of sign language.

Although the sentences seemed clunky at first glance, containing words like "Her hair was long and shimmered in the wind like a swarm of bees." or "Her full heavy breasts ignited his lust.", we were mesmerised when what appeared like purple prose in English turned into such graceful movements and such expressive glances.

The story itself is rather straightforward. It is set in the time of the Pandava exile, when they were in hiding at the palace of King Virata. Bhima had disguised himself as a cook in the palace kitchens while Draupadi served as handmaid to the Queen. Keechaka was the Queen's young brother who fell in love with Draupadi and tried to seduce the handmaid not knowing her real identity. When Bhima finds out about Keechaka's increasingly violent advances, he vows to protect Draupadi. He then proceeds to deceive Keechaka and then in a very inventive scene, slays him.

I realise when I type it out, that in this form, it sounds rather brief and even banal. But to watch it played out with such delicate artistry by practitioners of one of India's oldest classical dance forms is a viscerally beautiful experience.

I can't help but recount the many moments that simply took my breath away. The erotic charge in the scene when Keechaka kneels before Draupadi and offers to 'massage her lotus-like feet', the playfulness with which he mimes her gracefully swaying walk, described as 'a cross between the majestic walk of an elephant and the artfulness of a beautiful swan', the frustrated rage with which he searches for her before realising she's slipped away from him yet again. I realised I was watching something really unique when we agreed we were enjoying the villain's antics too much to want the hero of the story to show up. But when he does, Bhima thoroughly acquits himself, what with the comfort he offers his distraught wife and the single-mindedness with which he chokes the life out of Keechaka's body.

We were amazed by the sheer beauty to be found by floating lazily around a story that in these days of instant gratification would have been glossed over in instants. That sometimes love, or even lust, requires a leisurely touch. Even a villain can be charming when you watch him dance mischievously around the object of his desire. His death can also mean something when the dying blow takes a twenty-minute long and visually stunning scene to be delivered.

An old-timer watching the show with us reminisced about his childhood in Kerala when Kathakali performances lasted for days and nights together. But who had the patience for that now? Three hours must feel like a lot to some busy folks, he muttered. I looked at Chaitanya's beaming face and realised what it must feel like for him to be back after so long in a country where these epics are so deeply etched in our minds that we don't even need to be told the story to know what's happening, who wins and who dies, who gets the girl in the end. Perhaps that is why he needs to fill his days here with 'culture' because he really does miss it. He misses the Mahabharata serial from DD where people shot card-board arrows at each other, where people wore faux-gold jewelry and spouted unintentionally hilarious Hindi dialogue sprinkled with a smattering of Sanskrit words.

After the performance, we heard the acclaimed dancer Dr. Sadanam Balakrishnan whose masterful performance of the titular Keechaka has me raving right now, talk about how the Mahabharata was about real people. How the Ramayana was an idealised story about ideal men and ideal kings and ideal brothers and ideal wives but the Mahabharata was about passion-plays and emotions. He also told us about how his need to bring more of these emotions and dramatic stories to Kathakali had led him to adapt Shakespearean tragedies like Othello and Macbeth, and the Greek tragedies of Euripides to dances choreographed entirely by him.

I couldn't help but grab involuntarily at dada's arm at that. He smiled back at me. The idea of watching Othello performed by Kathakali dancers made complete sense somehow. 

Driving back home, along Marine Drive at midnight, I couldn't help but comment on Draupadi's lot in life, to be lusted after by so many men must have been tough. Dada chuckled, he reminded me of Irawati Karve's Yuganta, a fascinating collection of essays about the Mahabharata written in a shockingly detached, even clinical manner. I recalled the penultimate essay about Draupadi. How Karve believed that her great tragedy was not being staked in a game of dice, or being forced into a life of penury. It was falling in love with the wrong husband. While she loved Arjuna deeply, he never loved her back. It was always Bhima - strong, stubborn, selfless Bhima who loved her with all his heart. And she never realised the value of this love until it was too late.

I smiled at the passing lights of the Queen's Necklace at night, resolving to write this all out on my blog as soon as I got home, and wondering what a Kathakali adaptation of that particular tragedy would look like.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

La Vie en rose

Do you think it is possible to love someone utterly and completely for their mind alone? For the thoughts that course through it, for the beauty that it can create, for the ideas that bubble up to its surface, for the marvellous words it makes into sentences spoken in a voice you haven't heard yet?

I was watching 'A Little Romance' in the afternoon, and I couldn't help but be taken aback when the film's thirteen-year-old protagonist wonders about soulmates and says he worried that perhaps he'd never meet his soulmate because she may have been someone who lived in a different time - in Egypt when they built the pyramids or on a colony in Mars in the 24th century. And if he was lucky enough to have a lifetime that overlapped with hers, perhaps she lived in Tunisia or Japan or a place he'd never travel to.

It just felt sad - the idea of having a soulmate you could never meet. The movie probably intended it as a minor cute moment in the larger discussion that led to a rosily pictured 'first-kiss'. But the idea had taken hold of me and I could not relinquish it.

If all I could have of my soulmate was just their thoughts, then would that be enough? For one day, for a year, for a lifetime?

Or as Mitzi says, I am too old to watch movies like this one or to set much store by the beleaguered concept of soulmates.

I agree with her, it is better to know you don't have one than knowing you do and realizing that the laws of probability tell you that odds such as those are pretty insurmountable.